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Narrowing the Racial Achievement Gap


Q. What's being done to help encourage more black and Latino students to excel in "gatekeeper" math and science classes, like algebra and biology? Don't they need extra help to gain the confidence and skills to take higher-level, college-prep math and science and aim their career sights higher?


In some poor urban and rural schools with lots of minority students, the dropout rate may approach 80%. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 43% of black 12th graders and 58% of Latinos test "below basic" in math. And according to the Urban Institute, half of black, Native American and Latino ninth-graders will not graduate in four years.


A lot of the reason for this is that students lack basic math skills, for various reasons. But there's hope. Several years ago the Providence, R.I., school district began requiring that all students take higher-level mathematics as part of the College Board's Equity 2000 initiative. Today, 97% of Latino and African-American students there take algebra, compared with only 37% of black students and 27% of Hispanic students in 1991. (Article, "Achievement Gap Widening, Study Reports," Education Week, Dec. 4, 1996)


Compare that to dismal findings by the Comprehensive Partnerships for Mathematics and Science Achievement, a project of the National Science Foundation. It found that in the Omaha Public Schools in 1995-96, for example, only 9% of ninth-graders who were members of minority groups completed algebra. That same year, only 4% of the district's minority graduates had passed physics, biology or chemistry, compared to 26% of white students.


What's the difference? Usually, it takes one or more individuals who are absolutely determined to make math happen for disadvantaged kids. Often it is a charismatic teacher who may battle with school authorities, but with creativity and passion, can turn a seemingly helpless situation around for poor kids. The reason it's important: without good math skills and the principles of algebra, especially, no matter how gifted a student is otherwise, it is tough to succeed in higher-level high-school math and science courses, much less in most any major in college, or most any career.


Here are some of the most successful programs around. They ought to be studied, and emulated:

The Banneker programs (

The Algebra Project (

Everyday Mathematics (, and note: not recommended for middle- or high-achieving students, but good for those who need more of a foundation)

Saxon Mathematics (

College Summit

Gates Foundation "Early College High Schools"

General Electric Foundation College Bound Program

GEAR UP, TRIO and State Scholars Initiative (federal programs)


Homework: Learn more about the inspiring story of 1960s radical Robert Moses, and what he has done to improve math education for inner-city minority youth in The Algebra Project,


By Susan Darst Williams Special Learners 09 2008


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